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Chapter 23

XXIII

I can hardly tell you just how we came to own our love to each other; but one day I found myself alone with her mother, with the sense that Eveleth had suddenly withdrawn from the room at the knowledge of my approach. Mrs. Gray was strongly moved by something; but she governed herself, and, after giving me a tremulous hand, bade me sit.

"Will you excuse me, Mr. Homos," she began, "if I ask you whether you intend to make America your home after this?"

"Oh no!" I answered, and I tried to keep out of my voice the despair with which the notion filled me. I have sometimes had nightmares here, in which I thought that I was an American by choice, and I can give you no conception of the rapture of awakening to the fact that I could still go back to Altruria, that I had not cast my lot with this wretched people. "How could I do that?" I faltered; and I was glad to perceive that I had imparted to her no hint of the misery which I had felt at such a notion. "I mean, by getting naturalized, and becoming a citizen, and taking up your residence among us."

"No," I answered, as quietly as I could, "I had not thought of that."

"And you still intend to go back to Altruria?"

"I hope so; I ought to have gone back long ago, and if I had not met the friends I have in this house—" I stopped, for I did not know how I should end what I had begun to say.

"I am glad you think we are your friends," said the lady, "for we have tried to show ourselves your friends. I feel as if this had given me the right to say something to you that you may think very odd."

"Say anything to me, my dear lady," I returned. "I shall not think it unkind, no matter how odd it is."

"Oh, it's nothing. It's merely that—that when you are not here with us I lose my grasp on Altruria, and—and I begin to doubt—"

I smiled. "I know! People here have often hinted something of that kind to me. Tell me, Mrs. Gray, do Americans generally take me for an impostor?"

"Oh no!" she answered, fervently. "Everybody that I have heard speak of you has the highest regard for you, and believes you perfectly sincere. But—"

"But what?" I entreated.

"They think you may be mistaken."

"Then they think I am out of my wits—that I am in an hallucination!"

"No, not that," she returned. "But it is so very difficult for us to conceive of a whole nation living, as you say you do, on the same terms as one family, and no one trying to get ahead of another, or richer, and having neither inferiors nor superiors, but just one dead level of equality, where there is no distinction except by natural gifts and good deeds or beautiful works. It seems impossible—it seems ridiculous."

"Yes," I confessed, "I know that it seems so to the Americans."

"And I must tell you something else, Mr. Homos, and I hope you won't take it amiss. The first night when you talked about Altruria here, and showed us how you had come, by way of England, and the place where Altruria ought to be on our maps, I looked them over, after you were gone, and I could make nothing of it. I have often looked at the map since, but I could never find Altruria; it was no use."

"Why," I said, "if you will let me have your atlas—"

She shook her head. "It would be the same again as soon as you went away." I could not conceal my distress, and she went on: "Now, you mustn't mind what I say. I'm nothing but a silly old woman, and Eveleth would never forgive me if she could know what I've been saying."

"Then Mrs. Strange isn't troubled, as you are, concerning me?" I asked, and I confess my anxiety attenuated my voice almost to a whisper.

"She won't admit that she is. It might be better for her if she would. But Eveleth is very true to her friends, and that—that makes me all the more anxious that she should not deceive herself."

"Oh, Mrs. Gray!" I could not keep a certain tone of reproach out of my words.

She began to weep. "There! I knew I should hurt your feelings. But you mustn't mind what I say. I beg your pardon! I take it all back—"

"Ah, I don't want you to take it back! But what proof shall I give you that there is such a land as Altruria? If the darkness implies the day, America must imply Altruria. In what way do I seem false, or mad, except that I claim to be the citizen of a country where people love one another as the first Christians did?"

"That is just it," she returned. "Nobody can imagine the first Christians, and do you think we can imagine anything like them in our own day?"

"But Mrs. Strange—she imagines us, you say?"

"She thinks she does; but I am afraid she only thinks so, and I know her better than you do, Mr. Homos. I know how enthusiastic she always was, and how unhappy she has been since she has lost her hold on faith, and how eagerly she has caught at the hope you have given her of a higher life on earth than we live here. If she should ever find out that she was wrong, I don't know what would become of her. You mustn't mind me; you mustn't let me wound you by what I say."

"You don't wound me, and I only thank you for what you say; but I entreat you to believe in me. Mrs. Strange has not deceived herself, and I have not deceived her. Shall I protest to you, by all I hold sacred, that I am really what I told you I was; that I am not less, and that Altruria is infinitely more, happier, better, gladder, than any words of mine can say? Shall I not have the happiness to see your daughter to-day? I had something to say to her—and now I have so much more! If she is in the house, won't you send to her? I can make her understand—"

I stopped at a certain expression which I fancied I saw in Mrs. Gray's face.

"Mr. Homos," she began, so very seriously that my heart trembled with a vague misgiving, "sometimes I think you had better not see my daughter any more."

"Not see her any more?" I gasped.

"Yes; I don't see what good can come of it, and it's all very strange and uncanny. I don't know how to explain it; but, indeed, it isn't anything personal. It's because you are of a state of things so utterly opposed to human nature that I don't see how—I am afraid that—"

"But I am not uncanny to her!" I entreated. "I am not unnatural, not incredible—"

"Oh no; that is the worst of it. But I have said too much; I have said a great deal more than I ought. But you must excuse it: I am an old woman. I am not very well, and I suppose it's that that makes me talk so much."

She rose from her chair, and I, perforce, rose from mine and made a movement towards her.

"No, no," she said, "I don't need any help. You must come again soon and see us, and show that you've forgotten what I've said." She gave me her hand, and I could not help bending over it and kissing it. She gave a little, pathetic whimper. "Oh, I know I've said the most dreadful things to you."

"You haven't said anything that takes your friendship from me, Mrs. Gray, and that is what I care for." My own eyes filled with tears—I do not know why—and I groped my way from the room. Without seeing any one in the obscurity of the hallway, where I found myself, I was aware of some one there, by that sort of fine perception which makes us know the presence of a spirit.

"You are going?" a whisper said. "Why are you going?" And Eveleth had me by the hand and was drawing me gently into the dim drawing-room that opened from the place. "I don't know all my mother has been saying to you. I had to let her say something; she thought she ought. I knew you would know how to excuse it."

"Oh, my dearest!" I said, and why I said this I do not know, or how we found ourselves in each other's arms.

"What are we doing?" she murmured.

"You don't believe I am an impostor, an illusion, a visionary?" I besought her, straining her closer to my heart.

"I believe in you, with all my soul!" she answered.

We sat down, side by side, and talked long. I did not go away the whole day. With a high disdain of convention, she made me stay. Her mother sent word that she would not be able to come to dinner, and we were alone together at table, in an image of what our united lives might be. We spent the evening in that happy interchange of trivial confidences that lovers use in symbol of the unutterable raptures that fill them. We were there in what seemed an infinite present, without a past, without a future.

William Dean Howells